Dir. Sofia Coppola
(2010, R, 97 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Somewhere opens with a shot some might like and others might consider awfully indulgent. I liked it. We watch a flat terrain under an empty sky, where a sports car drives around and around and around. Four laps I counted, right on the razor’s edge between whimsical and we get it already. Movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) stops the car and gets out. His life is going in circles, you see, around and around and getting nowhere. A little on-the-nose, you might say, and you’d be right, but it achieves a soothing rhythm that drew me into the film. It’s absorbing in an eccentric, almost comic way.

How you feel about that opening scene is likely how you will feel about the rest of the film. Directed by Sofia Coppola in her cool, unhurried, contemplative style, it’s a study of negative space. Johnny spend his time idly, prompted to action only by phone calls from his handlers to let him know where to be and when. In one scene, he’s sent to the special effects department, where his face is covered in a plaster mold, and Coppola holds the shot for longer than you’d expect, about as long as she filmed that car driving around. We’re literally, it seems, watching paint dry.

Elle Fanning, as Cleo

These look like the moments that must take place in-between the important moments in the life of a famous actor but we come to realize that Johnny has no important moments, only the in-between. His entire life is negative space. He’s whisked from place to place, event to event, interview to interview like a passenger on a ride, and often he doesn’t seem to know what ride he’s on, when it started, or when it will stop. Coppola has considered this theme before: the isolated, vacant worlds of the privileged (the title character of Marie Antoinette, Bill Murray’s fish-out-of-water actor in Lost in Translation). She’s the daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, and her famous relatives include Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman. She has inhabited worlds like these and empathizes with their gilded emptiness.

A rich girl telling stories about poor rich people, Coppola is at risk of seeming whiny and self-important. But she doesn’t view these milieus with casual disdain or petty complaint. She’s more thoughtful and aware, and in this film is critical of the world she envisions even as she sympathizes with the man at its center. That critical eye takes the form of Johnny’s daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, doing subtle, mature work). Cleo’s mother, for reasons unknown, leaves her daughter in her father’s care and disappears. Johnny’s life is not upended, per se, as it might be in a screwball comedy. He fits her right into his busy days of playing Guitar Hero, luxuriating in hotels, and at one point being honored at an Italian awards ceremony for … something. We’re not sure what his career achievement is, and neither does he. There are vague indications that he’s worked with Al Pacino and Meryl Streep — achievement by proxy.

Elle lives a fuller life at eleven than her father lives as a world-traveling movie star. She ice skates. While Johnny sleeps in she cooks an elaborate breakfast. He takes her to the casino and the pool, but often his roommate is more attentive to her than he is. She’s smart and self-possessed, an interesting person in spite of him. He doesn’t have much to offer. He clearly loves her, but parenting is another story.

He beds women, mostly pretty blonds like Cleo’s mother, almost out of habit. Strip shows put on for him in his bedroom have a rough, inelegant quality. Coppola films them with a static camera, without attention to composition. She’s showing us a dreary and detached male gaze, which she counters later with another kind of gaze. In Italy, Johnny is visited in his hotel room by a beautiful woman. The next morning, she comes to the breakfast table in a bathrobe and makes awkward conversation with Cleo, who casts knowing, disdainful glares at her father. Coppola focuses on Fanning, whose eyes are a damning reproach. Is it Johnny or Cleo with whom Coppola identifies in this film? Maybe a little of both.

This is a patient, deliberate film without much plot and will be considered unbearably slow to some, perhaps many. But I found it quietly moving, tender. It doesn’t strain for a big emotional payoff. It shows how Johnny lives his life, how Cleo sees his life, and finally how Johnny sees himself. It ends with an odd, ambiguously metaphorical bookend to the opening scene. What it means I can’t say for sure. But it seems hopeful.

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